Bowyer tank has just enough
Posted: Monday, September 20, 2010 4:54 pm
By: By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — While Clint Bowyer cruised across the finish line with his first victory in over two years, a wrecker slid in behind Tony Stewart to push him the rest of the way around New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Bowyer stretched his gas over the final 92 laps of Sunday’s opening race to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship to throw himself into the thick of the title hunt. Stewart’s tank ran dry on the same gamble, and the two-time champion fell into a serious hole.
The frantic final laps capped a topsy-turvy day in NASCAR’s 10-race title-deciding format. Denny Hamlin rallied to finish second and maintain his points lead, but Bowyer used the win to vault from last in the Chase field to second, 35 points behind the leader.
“We launched ourselves into the pressure cooker,” said Bowyer. “You’ve got to be able to continue to have as much fun as we did this weekend. If we can do that, we can continue to have the success and run at this pace.”
Bowyer used a big gamble from Richard Childress Racing crew chief Shane Wilson, who figured after dominating the race but losing the lead to Stewart, they had to try something to salvage the win. If they failed, no harm done.
Not so for Stewart. He could have tried to conserve fuel and maybe settle for a top-five finish, but in trying to knock down a win in the Chase opener, it cost him dearly.
Stewart limped his car home to a 24th-place finish that cost him five spots in the standings.
He’s now 11th and trails Hamlin by 124 points.
“We went down swinging,” he said. “It’s a tough way to start the Chase. I would have settled for second. If you knew exactly how much gas you have, it would be different, but you never know. It’s part of the sport, always has been. It’s what makes it exciting when you never know until the last lap who’s going to happen.”
Bowyer went to New Hampshire fairly certain he could win.
Pressure-free with little to lose as the 12th seed, he aimed for a repeat of the 2007 Chase opener, when he grabbed his first career victory. That dramatic win pushed him to a career-best third-place finish in the final standings.
By pouncing when Stewart’s tank ran dry, Bowyer snapped an 88-race losing streak while racing with nothing to lose.
“I had a lot of fun, it was kind of a relaxing weekend,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be that way from now on. You’ve got to be able to continue to have as much fun as we did this weekend. If we can do that, we can continue to have the success and run at this pace.”
And what a pace it was.
In arguably the best Chase opener since the format’s 2004 debut, the championship contenders bounced all over the field Sunday as driver after driver faced various issues.
Hamlin, the points leader, was spun by Carl Edwards on a mid-race restart and rallied from 22nd to finish second. Harvick, the points leader for most of the “regular season,” struggled through a series of bad pit stops to fall as low as 18th before finishing fifth.
Four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson was derailed by a loose right wheel late in the race to finish 25th, the lowest of the Chase drivers. And after stressing that New Hampshire was his biggest concern of the Chase, Matt Kenseth capped a weekend of struggles with a noncompetitive 23rd-place finish.
The Chase shifts next weekend to Dover, Del., where Hamlin takes a 35-point lead over Bowyer into one of his weakest race tracks.
“It gives me somewhat of a buffer,” he said. “We all know how Dover is for me.”
The race at the top of the standings is still tight, even for Johnson, who dropped five spots to seventh. But at only 92 points out and headed to a track where he’s a five-time winner, Johnson didn’t seem worried.
“We’ll go home and get back to work and go after it again next week,” Johnson said.